When Cloven Hoofprints Turn Up in the Garden: The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee at 20

The band’s pivotal, heartbreaking major-indie debut was their first true concept album

John Darnielle (Image: Merge Records)

Without question, 2002 was the year of the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle’s longtime vehicle for himself, a songwriter whose nasal, exclamatory bray is highly indicative of how many words he can’t wait to put into the air. 

His band may own the catalog of the finest fiction set to music, working backwards from this year’s excellent action-movies valentine Bleed Out, to the pro wrestling diaries of Beat the Champ, the slightly more opaque mental illness catalogue Transcendental Youth, the bible-drawn allegories of The Life of the World to Come and many more entire collections themed around heartbreak, death, goths and D&D. 

Two of his absolute best triumphs are actually autobiographical: We Shall All Be Healed, 2004’s fractious recounting of his days with meth users he believes are mostly “dead or in jail” by now, and the following year’s The Sunset Tree, which candidly showed us his stepfather’s violence through his childhood’s eyes.

But these album-length explorations of one theme began with Tallahassee, Darnielle’s finest album, his Rubber Soul pivot to something so much bigger than even his fiercely devoted legion of fans could imagine. Many of those people won’t be happy to hear that his previous 2002 album All Hail West Texas is the Help! in this silly analogy. All Hail West Texas, with plenty of great songs (“Riches and Wonder,” “Jenny,” the iconic “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”) in its own right, all of which celebrated by the I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast and an attendant cover version of each, is another summation before a great transition. Until the COVID era’s Songs for Pierre Chuvin, it was Darnielle’s last full-length recorded via old unreliable boombox, a lo-fi last hurrah for those who wished him well as he signed with 4AD. For many of us who could never fully access the static limitations of his minor-indie catalog, West Texas was a helpful TL;DR. For some back-when types, it’s his last gasp of genius. I say it’s where that all got started. The fact both it and the completely different Tallahassee were recorded in 2001 and released the next year just puts a finer point on how much the guy has to say.

 

 

Tallahassee is where Darnielle engaged his longtime Alpha Couple subjects for an entire song cycle. It’s the first time he wrote about the same characters for an entire record. It’s the first time he recorded in a studio, even though it only took six days, letting his jaw-dropping verbiage win out over tape hiss. It’s not his first time recording with backup musicians, but it’s the first time he really made a “band” record, even though We Shall All Be Healed two years later has significantly more tracks performed with, say, a drummer, it may take you several listens to notice. Few acoustic-with-vocal setups sound fuller, and few brilliant writers take up so much of the audio field with their voice. His forceful strumming, box-cutter enunciation, and titanic lyrical images cloak any first-time listener’s realization that only “See America Right” and “Oceanographer’s Choice” feature a complete rhythm section.

I just want to spend a moment on the oft-overlooked arrangements. Franklin Bruno’s piano earns co-star billing on “No Children,” such a gargantuan highlight of Darnielle’s songwriting career that it even went viral on Tiktok last year and gave the two-decade-old mixtape special new life. But it also adds an unexpected key switch before the chorus of the otherwise solo “Have to Explode.” The eerie backwards guitar that overlays “Oceanographer’s Choice” as it builds with a songwriter’s newfound propulsion, the swirling organ of “Old College Try,” the ride-cymbals-only percussion of the hyper-strummed “First Few Desperate Hours,” and the low-mixed scream “hey!” that punctuates “See America Right” all deserve their due for making Tallahassee as tense and grand as it is. And yet the album is still so sparse, these touches so few and far between, that I was able to list almost all of them in this paragraph.

The melodies are so gorgeous in their own right — the delicate strums of “Peacocks,” the almost nursery-rhyme-grade chorus of “Idylls of the King,” the muted yoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoos on the title refrain, and the showstopping, unadorned “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” the flowering major-key chordage of “First Few Desperate Hours” — that Tallahassee was one of the best albums I’d ever heard before I’d even processed the words beyond the stuff you can’t even miss on first go: “Ah, but look at this showroom, filled with fabulous prizes,” “And I hope you die, I hope we both die,” “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania.”

What’s left to say about the words 20 years on? Unlike many of the still-pretty-great albums that followed, Tallahassee is just such a complete work. For under 45 minutes it fulfills anyone’s songwriting assignment from the git: “Window facing an ill-kept front yard / Plums on the tree heavy with nectar / Prayers to summon the destroying angel / Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector.” Few albums have ever set the scene like that. “And you / You-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” This doomed marriage cycle is one car-wreck of an image to the next. Terrible silence. Love like Cuban planes. A house like a Louisiana graveyard where nothing stays buried. Their “song” is a game show theme. Her eyes are “twin volcanoes.”

The Mountain Goats Tallahassee, 4AD 2002

A fair amount of time is spent describing their house alone, as dilapidated as the relationship itself, with rotting stairs and broken bottles and various ominous birds circling, as crows turn to vultures to, in a typically hysterical Darnielle touch, “innumerable gibbons.” The car radiator bursts. By the deceptively ebullient farewell “Alpha Rats Nest,” they’re decomposing vampires in a maybe-metaphorical fire that he’s spent 13 tracks convincing you this house deserves. “Sing for the damage we’ve done / And the worse things that we’ll do” they conclude.

Really, “No Children” encapsulates the entire plot of Tallahassee in less than three minutes, the toxicity, the filmic lyrical breadth, the intensity on both Darnielle’s yelping deathwish and nearly as violent strums. It’s as compact a conversion tool as one could ever need to make their case for the tremendous value of his Ochs-cum-Mangum bleat, death-black humor, and rousing major chords that the Dropkick Murphys wouldn’t have to adjust too much for one of their own barroom brawlers. 

This is a flawless song-by-song album of block chords as astounding in their simplicity as the words are in their cinematic splendor.  It’s getting its due after tepid reviews at the time (not that there’s anything wrong with “sounding like Cake,” Pitchfork of 2002) via 20 years of better word-of-mouth than money could buy and several months of new fuel from the same discerning public that brought us Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X. All that’s left to do is lay back and enjoy the flames, the violence, destruction.

John Darnielle has spent a career teaching us where the beauty lies in these horrors. Tallahassee is where that genius begins.

 

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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